It’s been a wild ride over the past three weeks, both metaphorically and figuratively. Since leaving Moab and some fantastic sushi, we headed cross country to hit the parks of southern Utah (Capitol Reef, Bryce, Zion).
Utah welcomed us with some of the most breathtaking views ever. High crags of red, gold and pink sandstone lined the highways. We were able to drive up narrow two lane roads (shoulder, what shoulder?) where the earth fell away down thousands of feet into narrow, rock strewn valleys. Straight lines don’t exist in Utah. Every road twists up and across some mountain crest or drops away without warning while swinging 180 degrees on a blind curve, speed limit 50 mph. Where states like Florida or Massachusetts would have multiple warning signs blinking “Caution”, Utah saves the warnings for where it really matters: death defying downgrades.
The Interstate Highway system allows a maximum grade of 6 degrees in mountainous areas, 7 degrees in cities. On Utah state “scenic” roads, they don’t even bother to announce the grade unless it’s over 10. We got up to 16 degrees coming down the mountain from ski town Brian’s Head. A flat road is grade 0. A ski jump is 10.5 degrees. Take it from me, 16 is terrifying. Did I mention Utah rarely uses guardrails? I promise not to complain about the flat Florida roads ever again.
The Parks are full of visitors. Capitol Reef (1 million visitors), located in Torrey, UT (pop. 256) had the fewest. It isn’t close to anything so not so many people. Still, spectacular scenery highlighted by a drive down a deep gorge lined with honeycomb patterned sandstone. Not a good place to be during flash floods, but little change of that with the Western drought. We haven’t seen any rain this trip, although we’ve been treated to 50mph winds, 5% humidity, temperatures from 26 to 110, extreme forest fire risks and sandstorms. Which explains why the Jeep was totally packed with gear and clothes for everything except heavy snow.
The closer we got to Las Vegas, the busier the park. Bryce (1.5 million visitors) located in Torrey, UT, (pop. 529) had a fair number of people but it’s hard to blame them for coming: the Hoodoos are magnificent. Pink, orange and ivory spires topped with craggy knobs, the Hoodoos were visible for miles before we arrived at the park. Once inside, the view down into the giant amphitheater resembles a ring of fire. As the park road extends to its conclusion at Rainbow Point, the elevation rises to over 10,000 feet and the temperature drops to freezing. The park road is again steep and curvy and someone was not paying close attention: a wrecker is pulling the remains of a small pickup off the pavement. Lucky driver since both sides of the road dropped thousands of feet.
Our last Utah park, Zion, was only a few short and scary miles from Bryce so we decided to make a large loop over a couple more “scenic” highways before attacking Zion. We’ll never learn. That’s where we found UT 143 (east to west) and it’s east to west counterpart UT 14. UT 143 seemed pretty tame until we reached the mountain peak at the aforementioned Brian’s Head at about 10,000 ft elevation. A hair raising drive to the bottom, where, still not learning, we went back over the mountain on UT 14. At least on UT14, the steep grades (16 degrees!) went up around hairpin turns rather than down.
We entered Zion (5 million visitors), located in Springdale, (pop. 598) from the east through an unassuming desert spotted with pinion and cedar which gave suddenly gave way to miles of spectacular red rock formations that rose from the roadside for thousands of feet. We drove through the “historic” 1.1 mile tunnel that is carved out of the mountains to access the main part of the park. Historic and tunnel are never words I like to see next to each other but we made it through on UT9 which, holding to form for Utah roads, was incredibly twisty, scary and mesmerizing—all at the same time. Again, not three words you really want to use together.
Zion was packed. Two and a half hours from Las Vegas makes it irresistible to tourists. We saw all ages, sizes and nationalities. Most of Germany was at Zion, along with all the Shanghai residents who couldn’t return home. All kinds of Slavic accents including some Russians who must be sitting out the draft in the US. Let me say that women from all over the world are much larger than I remember although maybe it was the effect of the spandex and crop tops.
We made it to the Grand Canyon in Arizona, our last park. We’re zapped. 3500 miles so far and 2200 to get home. Right now, we’re sitting in rocking chairs on the front porch of the historic El Tovar Hotel while seatless tourists covet our perch. I can attest that the El Tovar is historic. It looks just like the East Bay Lodge did in 1965 when I moved in. The main Lodge was built around the same time as the El Tovar and they share the same cramped bathrooms, paper thin walls, and lack of modern electricity. However, the El Tovar is about 50 feet from the Grand Canyon’s Mather Point with the spectacular canyon views, so, not complaining, too much.
We are NOT hiking or taking the mules to the bottom. Temperature on the canyon floor today: 107 degrees. Instead, we took the helicopter for a sweeping dawn flight over the whole canyon—and I have the pictures to prove it.
We’ve been sitting here for an hour listening to the same United Nations that was at Zion. Except there are more of them. Eight million visitors a year, seemingly all here today. I’m convinced now that Germany must be empty and there is no lockdown in Shanghai—everyone just left for the park.
Five more days and we’ll be back to enjoy the heat and humidity of Sarasota. Five more days of adventure.